Deconstructing The Binary Of Government And Civil Society - Taiwan’s g0v
If someone invited you to attend a ‘civic hackers’ event in Taipei, Taiwan, what would your first reaction be? To the untrained ear, your first assumption might be that you are joining a discussion organised for the benefit of the Hakkas, a Chinese ethnic minority. Reading the sign on the door and performing a mental spellcheck, you may then proceed to leap to the next conclusion - that you have been led into an underground world of anti-establishment tech savvy anarchists, and should perhaps reconsider your Friday night plans if you’re not yet ready to say goodbye to your hard-to-come-by Resident Visa and have President Tsai Ing-wen boot you back to the UK.
My first impressions of g0v, the activist hacking community in question, were not far from the above. But I soon stood corrected, as in one evening I began to form an initial wispy notion of this influential yet invisible community named g0v (pronounced ‘gov zero’, 零時政府 in Mandarin). The next weeks were a race to put together the next pieces of the puzzle as I sought to research, understand and eventually become a contributor to this group.
G0v in a nutshell
Based on my initial understanding, g0v walks the fine line between governmental and non governmental organisation, or perhaps, redefines it. While its self-categorisation as a group of hackers may create some confusion, put more simply it is a civic tech community which aims to increase Taiwanese citizens’ participation in democracy, reconnecting people to politics. Established in 2012, the organisation attempts to identify the sweet spot between civil activism and tech innovation, combining the political notion of ‘open government’ with the coding concept of ‘open-source’ to achieve greater transparency, promote accessible information sharing, and facilitate polycentric, bottom-up governance. In its own words, ‘g0v aims to use technology in the interest of the public good, allowing citizens easy access to vital information and power to shape civil society.’ The community’s name itself exemplifies this idea - the ‘o’ of ‘gov’ replaced with a zero to symbolise both the reconceptualisation of government, starting from zero, as well as the binary code which it draws upon to realise these objectives (g0v contributors, 2022).
Fig. 1: The g0v Venn Diagram.
Guiding values of a guide-less organisation
G0v abides by a particular motto - “instead of asking why no one is solving the problem, admit that you are that nobody” (g0v contributors, 2022). Guided by principles of radical transparency, multi-stakeholderism and accountability, it attempts to apply digital infrastructure to domestic politics. Wielding open data and public tools, it empowers citizens to evaluate their government and influence decision-making, prioritising the establishment of consensus over the blanket application of majority rule votes. Promoting the development of “People-Public-Private Partnerships”, as coined by Audrey Tang (唐鳳), is one of their key approaches to redefining multi-stakeholder governance, a ‘radically innovative way of melding power, politics, technology and hackerdom.’ (The Diplomat, 2021; Reasons to be Cheerful, 2020).
What is particular about the group? How does it function? First, it is officially memberless. Operating on the basis of anonymity and polycentricity, there are no official leaders, nor members - in theory anybody (or nobody) can participate and be a contributor, no matter their educational background, nationality or area of interest. Contributors can participate both online (communication occurs primarily through Slack channels and open source sharing using what is called a Hackfoldr (零時黑客包)) as well as offline, through large-scale ‘Hackathons’(黑客松工作坊) which occur every two months and more regular, single project-focused gatherings. The key is that at these events, anyone, no matter their experience or social position, can pitch an idea for a project and direct a group of ‘hackers’ in order to execute it. Since 2012, g0v has hosted over 40 hackathons, 4 international summits, 4 civic tech grants, boasting over 8000 contributors from all over the world (g0v.tw, 2022).
Achievements - from underground, to grassroots, to the government
Though its modus operandi is primarily low-key, veering towards underground, the organisation has had a considerable impact during several key moments of contemporary Taiwanese history, from the 2014 Sunflower Movement to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic which earned Taiwan and its government international recognition and model status.
During informal interviews I conducted with Taiwanese respondents of varying ages and backgrounds, although a considerable number of respondents were not actually aware the organisation existed or were not familiar with its name, most respondents, if not all, were familiar with two of the most famous projects g0v had launched (Odolant, 2022). During Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運 or 318學運) students and activists, including g0v contributors, began by rallying around a flashpoint issue, a trade bill which President Ma Ying-jeou would have seen considerably strengthen ties with mainland China. Underlying this emblematic issue, however, was a wave of dissatisfaction and anger expressed by a civic population which felt invisible, powerless to influence decision-making in a so-called democratic system. The result was the impromptu, pacific occupation of the Taiwanese parliament, known as the legislative yuan (立法院), and consequent tabling of the bill (Miller, 2020).
In an effort to respond to the problems brought to the forefront by the Sunflower movement, the government brushed aside its usual strategies of dialogue with lobbyists or political consultants, and instead turned to a group of g0v civic hackers with discussions in a university lecture theatre. Following the movement, members of g0v were recruited by the government, showcasing the extent to which the government was willing to recognize and make up for its own shortcomings. The most prominent of these recruits was Audrey Tang, who subsequently became the national digital minister under the Tsai Ing-wen government (Ibid). The problem, partially identified through these talks, was the lack of open or accessible information - on both sides of the spectrum. Traditional tools of democratic governance such as votes, referenda and public debates most often resulted in division, and this polarisation of the public confused lawmakers, hindering them from effectively identifying and responding to public needs. The solution drawn up by g0v in partnership with the government was to provide a means not to assess division, but instead create consensus. Taking a step beyond mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, which are known to foster echo chambers and rally opinion around sensationalist reporting of the truth, g0v users trialled an American software called ‘Polis’ through the vTaiwan (virtual Taiwan) project. Described as a “mixed-reality, scaled listening exercise” , this online open debate and decision-making policy-making platform created a map displaying the formation of nodes of agreement and dissent in real time, maximising the visibility of consensus and encouraging users to discuss until they could reach some form of common ground. This ‘re-engineering of the online space’ cleared away trolls, noise and unnecessary provocative divisiveness and provided politicians and lawmakers with a guide to refer to when casting votes and proposing bills. It was used to implement a dozen laws and regulations concerning issues from drunk driving and time zone changes to fintech regulation and revenge porn. Audrey Tang noted that “people spend far more time discovering their commonalities (...) than going down a rabbit hole on a particular issue. Invariably, (...) we always find a shape where most people agree on most of the statements” (Ibid).
Fig. 2: An example of vTaiwan consensus building.
Not all of g0v’s most impressive projects involve the deployment of high tech software. Relying on relatively simple tech and activist cooperation, g0v played an influential role in Taiwan’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, and could arguably be partially credited with the island’s successful containment of outbreaks. G0v’s two major contributions during the pandemic included the elaboration of crowdsourced “mask maps” (search application interfaces which enabled citizens to find available stocks of masks during a nation-wide mask shortage), and the contact-tracing quick response (QR) code check-in system still in place to date in virtually all public enclosed spaces. This hybrid solution which was crowdsourced and presented to Taiwan’s cabinet by the digital minister Ms. Tang involves scanning a quick response (QR codes) which presents a 15 digit code, then texted for free to Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) 1922 hotline (游，2020; Hale, 2022).
Fig. 3: “Map of Mask Supply in NHI Pharmacies in Taiwan” (全台健保特約藥局剩餘口罩地圖) - this is one of the services created by g0v contributors using government mask supply open data.
Key misconceptions - the myth of digital democracies
The reputation accompanying such a phenomenal portfolio of projects has also inevitably fostered a number of misconceptions. Chief among them is the idea that the community is run by and composed entirely of tech-savvy hackers, and that one must be experienced in this domain to contribute. In actual fact, individuals of all backgrounds are welcome, with participants ranging from software engineers, designers, NGO workers, journalists, lawyers, public servants, IT specialists, high school students and farmers.
Another common misunderstanding is that Audrey Tang is the leader of the g0v community. While Tang facilitates dialogue between g0v and the government by acting as a conductor of ideas, she is but one contributor in what can be more accurately described as an ‘ecosystem’ of tech-activists - this nuance is key to maintaining the community’s ‘decentralised by default’ approach to decision-making (Newcomb, 2021).
The biggest misconception, or perhaps oversimplification of g0v’s work is that it has single-handedly contributed to making Taiwan a digital democracy (數位民主). This buzz word can be seen plastered across media, particularly foreign publications (eg: The Diplomat, The Economist, etc). g0v representatives who I have conversed with seem to shy away or even scoff at the mention of this term. Four factors seem to be at the root of this dismissal - the first being that it is too vague and prone to lead to confusion as some focus on the concept of ‘digital’, while others on the idea of ‘democracy’. Second, it reduces the community to the tech tools they use rather than the actions and results they achieve (Chen, 2022). As emphasised by g0v contributor Peggy Lo: ‘tools are helpful, with people’ (Ibid). This idea has been echoed throughout history - “People, ideas, machines — in that order!” reminded Colonel John Boyd, a US Air Force pilot and military strategist. In essence, digital innovation must be coupled with human factors, using tech mechanisms to channel new behaviours and increase advocacy (Ibid). Yun Chen, an active g0v contributor, highlights that the organic narratives of civic tech participants have little to do with digital democracy. Second, it implies that all Taiwanese citizens are actively participating in digital civic practices, when the reality is still far from this - many rural, elderly Taiwanese citizens live disconnected from the digital world. Finally, as emphasised by journalist and activist Brian Hioe, to call Taiwan a ‘digital democracy’ would be to oversimplify and embellish the reality of slow, drawn out and in many cases incomplete bureaucratic processes (Newcomb, 2021). Hioe stresses that this identification denies the fact that “while some elements of government modernise and are brought into the digital age, other elements lag behind. Creating new apps to provide discreet services is not the same as comprehensive modernization” (Ibid). Instead, it may be more apt to use the terms of ‘decentralised, open government’, or digital political polycentricity, of which Taiwan is a known pioneer; testifying this claim in 2015, Taiwan was ranked No. 1 in open data by the Open Knowledge Foundation (Chen, 2022).
Applicability of Taiwan’s polycentric, resilient governance model
Despite these flawed perceptions, the initiatives taken by g0v are no doubt inspiring, and are key factors in Taiwan’s path towards becoming a powerful example of agile polycentric governance. As qrgued by James Balzer in a recent STEAR article (2022), in an unstable world facing increasingly complex issues, categorised as ‘wicked’ or VUCA, the traditional model of vertical governance has revealed itself to be insufficient; its limits have only been more acutely highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic and governments’ and multilateral institutions’ often uncoordinated, fragmented or fatally slow crisis response. Taiwan may not yet be a perfect example of a ‘digital democracy’, but its government’s ability to work alongside civic communities, to adapt to, integrate and rely on external propositions has given way to the possibility of implementing a new form of governance. Focusing on the principles of polycentric governance proposed by Balzer, the question remains - can this system be implemented outside of Taiwan? Or is it one unique to Taiwan, able to flourish only on democratically fertile territory?
Fig. 4: The most pressing threats of our time, and their causal pathways
Source: World Economic Forum (2021) from James Balzer
The g0v initiative is not, in fact, unique to Taiwan. While over the past decade, civic tech communities have also cropped up in the US and across Asia and Europe, to date Taiwan seems to present the most large and influential community of contributors. Why has Taiwan’s application of open government been so successful, while other countries have fallen further into unveiled distrust towards government, heightened verticality and polarisation during and in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Yun Chen identifies three factors at the root of Taiwanese g0v’s success - cost (of sustained action and communication following the opening up of data), the degree of civic participation (ranging from ‘clicktivism’ to ‘hacktivism’) and, overarchingly, trust - of the government in the civic community (2022). This last factor is defined as the pinnacle of this system’s success. It is evident that the government must trust the people with agenda-setting power (Tang, 2019). Yet, conversely, is civic trust in the government to begin with not also a necessary condition?
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the Taiwanese people’s trust in the government was already high, with 52% of respondents expressing at least “quite a lot” of confidence in the national government in a 2019 World Values Survey (BertelsmannStiftung, 2022). After a year of well-managed near brushes with Covid, trust ratings actually rose to an impressive 64.4% in 2020 (Ortiz-Ospina and Roser, 2022). The UK pales in comparison with 47.7% in 2019 and 34.7% in 2020 (Ibid; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2022). A population that shows itself to be noncompliant to regulations, whether owing to a lack of clear government guidance or even the government’s flouting of its own laws is likely to receive little trust and in turn, room to push boundaries and propose collaborative solutions to national issues. As Audrey Tang has asserted: ‘To give no trust is to get no trust’ - the principle cuts both ways (Newcomb, 2021).
Open governance is a way to encourage mutual trust, which in turn enables opportunities for collective action to flourish. Underpinning and maintaining this delicate balance is the concept of civic oversight and accountability, for instance, the g0v community taking measures to increase transparency involved making sure Covid contact tracing data on citizens was deleted after a determined time period, (Ibid). At its very core, this means maintaining the delicate balance between both relying on and challenging the existing form of democratic governance.
Fig. 5: The cost of political trust and engagement - Table hypothesizing results of different levels of government trust and political engagement
Source: Juliette Odolant (2022)
The question then remains as follows: how best to go about implementing open government or polycentric, resilient forms of governance in countries whose systems appear too rigid, perhaps brittle, to adapt? If in order for civic participation to improve, trust in government is a prerequisite, then perhaps it is too little, too late for a number of Western democracies. In countries where trust in the government has already reached record lows, the question is not whether the government will entrust the people with power, but whether the people will maintain their support for those who possess it. The anti-establishment movements tearing across Western Europe and the US only further entrench these limitations. When trust in government is low, but political engagement is high, the people will not rally around the government, but against it. Considered through this lens, mutual trust must be established once again before innovative solutions of any kind can be considered and implemented. As Cyd Harrell underlines, you cannot fix broken things through digital technology. You will only get digital broken things (Chen, 2022).
Interested in civic tech communities and g0v? To find out more, visit the g0v website:
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